In recent years, there has been a greater emphasis put on understanding the international relations of the post-Arab uprising in the Middle East. An unprecedented combination of widespread state failure, competitive interference, and instrumentalization of sectarianism by three rival would-be regional hegemons (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran) in failing states has produced a spiral of sectarianism at the grassroots level.
According to May Darwish, Saudi Arabia’s policy reflects ontological insecurity, as well as perceived threats to its distinctive identity as leader of the Islamic umma from Iran and from the trans-state Muslim Brotherhood Movement, particularly when the latter briefly came to power in Egypt and Tunisia. In regard to Pan-Arabism, rivalry for leadership within an identity community can be as intense as inter-communal conflicts, and this is currently the case within Islam. Against Iran’s revolutionary and republican Islam, which denied the legitimacy of Saudi conservative “American” and monarchic Islam, the Saudis responded with sectarian discourse depicting Shias as unbelievers, aimed at making Iran unentitled to leadership of the Muslim world. The threat of the Muslim Brotherhood, a mass-based Islam, to the legitimacy of the Saudi family-state’s top-down Islam, was countered by propagation of a Salafist Islam submissive to authority.
William Anthony Rivera shows how Iran’s political identity centres on resistance to US imperialism, seen by Iranian political elites as a matter of honour. External sanctions and threats seeking to raise the costs of defiance over the nuclear program were less effective than a rational choice perspective would anticipate because the US attempt to single out and deprive Iran of its rights under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) struck at Iran’s sense of honour. Since success in intra-elite competition depended on defending the honour of the country, Iranian elites who made any concessions in the nuclear negotiations were vulnerable to charges of selling out the national honour. Once a standard of honour is constructed, even if done purely instrumentally, it becomes a constraint on policy innovation.
At the regional level, Iran was a contender for regional hegemony as leader of a “resistance axis,” including Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah, against the United States and its regional allies, led by Saudi Arabia. Riyadh saw the power balance shifting toward Iran, first by the US invasion of Iraq which opened the door for Iran’s Shia clients to assume power in Baghdad, then by the 2013 nuclear deal that allowed Iran out of international isolation. Yet, the outbreak of the uprising against Iran’s Syrian ally, Bashar al-Asad, gave the Saudis the chance to replace him with a Sunni regime and thereby break the Resistance axis. The instrumentalization of Sunni sectarianism in Syria by Iran’s rivals empowered Sunni jihadists against whom Iran mobilized its own Shia non-state clients, above all Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Turkey, the third aspirant hegemon was the initial main beneficiary of the Arab uprising as Muslim Brotherhood branches having ideological affinity with Ankara’s ruling AKP, empowered by their electoral prowess and grassroots social infrastructure, formed the government in Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco. Turkey projected soft power among the newly democratizing Arab states as an economically successful democracy that accommodated Islam. However, Turkey’s regional standing was damaged by its involvement in the conflict in Syria, where it’s backing of the Muslim Brotherhood as a replacement for Asad in Damascus stood to advance its regional hegemony. Then, as Asad proved resilient, Turkey supported the more militarily effective jihadi movements, including the al-Qaida avatar, Jabha al-Nusra and what became ISIS. Its discourse and image were transformed from that of a democratic to a Sunni sectarian power.
Kose et al. and Ciftci et al. analyze 2012 opinion surveys to measure the outcome of the ideational battle for regional hegemony—the comparative “soft power” of the rival states. Before the uprising, the Iran-led resistance bloc had put the US-aligned Sunni powers, notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia, on the defensive in Arab public opinion as anti-Americanism was inflamed by the invasion of Iraq and anti-Israeli sentiment was stoked by the Lebanon and Gaza wars. They responded with sectarian discourses depicting Iran as Shia and anti-Arab but this found little resonance at the grassroots level. However, the post Arab uprising conflicts made people far more receptive to rival powers’ instrumentalization of sectarianism, encouraging a big surge in sectarian animosity at the grassroots level. Surveys found that, with some exceptions, religious identities predicted foreign policy attitudes: Sunnis backed Saudi Arabia and Turkey and opposed Iran while Shias supported Iran’s but not Saudi or Turkish roles in the region. Dramatically, Shia Hezbollah lost much of its soft power in Sunni regional opinion owing to its defense of the Syrian regime’s repression of mostly-Sunni protestors. Since Sunnis were the numerical majority, this shifted the ideational power balance against Iran.
These studies underline the importance of identities in the IR of the Middle East in shaping behaviour and as instruments in the power struggle. The three rival regional powers posed little military threat to each other and their conflict was waged by proxy wars in failed states. While hard power—guns and money—mattered in these conflicts, recruitment to armed movements like ISIS and Hezbollah depended to a considerable extent on sectarian ideology. And the outcome of proxy wars mattered because it was seen to shift the ideational more than the material balance of power. This balance was intimately linked to the legitimacy, hence the survival, not of states, but of rival regimes. Thus, in defending identity, regimes also defended their interests—and identity discourse was as powerful as guns and money in the Middle East and North Africa regional power struggle.
Featured image credit: City-traffic-Iran-tourism-cityscape-sky by hashem. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.